On 3rd July 2009, Kumari Mamata Banerjee (popularly known as Mamatadi (Didi), left to myself I would prefer to call her Masima-Ma jaisi or like mother) presented the first railway budget of the recently constituted government that gave United Progressive Alliance (UPA) its second term with Shri Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister. In its first term Shri Lalu Prasad Yadav was the railway minister and he is credited in turning around the Indian Railways from a loss making entity to a profit making one which continued even during the global downturn; currently, Shri Yadav is not a part of the UPA government. Given the backdrop, there are a lot of eyes on Masima. She is not new to this job. This is her third railway budget, the earlier two being presented when she was a minister in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government with Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee as Prime Minister. This is the first time that a female railway minster presented a budget before a female Lok Sabha speaker and that too when the country has its first female President.
Keeping in line with the ‘inclusive growth’ agenda of the government as envisaged under the 11th five year plan, Masima wanted to identify with the common man. She came to the parliament in her own vehicle (not the official one allotted to her) braving the traffic snarls and carried the budget paper in a jhola/cloth bag (not a leather briefcase). More importantly, she wanted to emphasize on social viability over economic unviability. Thus, the inclusiveness agenda has to focus on backward areas and underprivileged people. The budget document is a good read. For some of the important highlights, see the Press Information Bureau, PIB, version or the Ministry of Railways version. My takes on some fo these are as follows.
Special trains for perishable farm produce. This should be linked with better storage as also linking transport networks from the farm gate to railway centres. It has the potential of giving farmers a better price.
Provide facilities for transportation of rural craft. The implicit thought that there is more in rural areas than just farm produce. In fact, with low returns from farm produce, it is the rural non-farm avenues that need to be identified and propagated by the larger economy (wait for the main budget).
Izzat scheme: Monthly ticket of Rs.25/- for unorganized sector/poor with income of less than Rs.1500. This will help the vendors travelling by train.
Railway tickets are to be made available through post offices and mobile vans. People without access to internet or credit card are likely to benefit from this. This calls for some integration of the optic fibre cable network of railways. The railway budget refers to setting up an expert committee headed by Shri Sam Pitroda to look into these.
Concession for accredited press persons increased to 50 per cent. They can use this to travel to hinterland areas to capture more and more people-centric stories.
There was increasing talk of the Tatkal Schme charging more money. The charges have been reduced (from Rs.150/- to Rs.100/- per ticket) as also the number of days (from five to two) before which one could avail this facility.
Some other initiatives are ladies special trains in metros (Chennai, Delhi and Kolkata; it exists in Mumbai) during office hours, Yuva trains for youth from hinterland to metros. Duronto or non-stop point-to-point long distance trains. More importantly, passenger fares and freight tariffs have not been increased.